The more resilient a society is, the greater its ability to bounce back from a crisis.

The war against the novel coronavirus pandemic that is impacting hundreds of millions of lives and livelihoods has put to the test every country’s disaster and communication response system – and most, if not all, are having to adapt quickly on the fly. In this so-called hyper-connected age of the consumer, many governments, public health, and defence agencies alike are quickly coming to terms with just how unconnected their systems really are. 

This begs the question, when the world emerges from the COVID-19 public health crisis, will public- and private-sector organizations revert to their old ways of doing things? Or, will they adopt a new, better model? Will they expedite their digital agendas? 

Can the government afford to go digital? Can it afford not to? 

To be sure, they must find ways to balance their books and pay for their massive fiscal stimulus and emergency economic relief packages. They must also make the necessary digital investments to build a better society than what we had before the great lockdown. A balance will need to be found, as the latter is intrinsically vital to ensure a country’s future resiliency, economic prosperity, and competitiveness.

Will this crisis be the catalyst to drive digital adoption?  

The coronavirus pandemic is unlike previous shocks, such as oil price crises, natural disasters, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the 2008-09 global financial meltdown. The 1973-74 oil shock did prompt lower mandated speed limits and smaller, fuel-efficient cars until geopolitics and consumer demand shifted. After 9/11, we headed into the global war on terrorism, and while the public faced much tighter airport security measures, air travel resumed to normal quickly. 

The reality is, none of these prior crises had a lasting fundamental impact on the way people work, interact, shop, travel, and learn. 

Virtually overnight, countries put into place social distancing measures and travel restrictions to contain the spread of the virus. Suddenly, organizations were abruptly forced into testing new technology and communication and collaboration tools, and are finding them to be just as good, or even better, than how they operated in the past. 

If it’s not already top of mind, the new reality demands governments, companies, and the military to break down their institutional and technical barriers. Data silos and systems that don’t talk to each other means that potentially useful data is inaccessible. The more connected an organization, the more efficient and effective it can be post-disaster in its response, resilience, recovery, and new reality phases. 

The concept of a connected enterprise, albeit developed by KPMG Global for commercial applications, is directly applicable in the public sector and defence agencies. KPMG identified eight core capabilities in which an organization needs to invest in order to compete, grow, and effectively deliver on its stated vision, mandate, or goals. At its core, it’s about harnessing the power of digital technology. 

This framework is essential to assist decision-makers in crafting and implementing clear plans for post-disaster response and recovery, including mobilizing people and resources.

In the coming year, organizations will need to aggressively re-examine their business models and continuity plans, identify opportunities for right-sizing, identify supply chain risks and prioritize investments. 

In the military, data scientists are already working to optimize supply chain management, use data patterns to predict an enemy’s movement, and project the number of new recruits or determine the optimal air evacuation route for a disaster-prone region. 

Disaster response is an area where digital technology is playing an increasingly important role. 

Big data and machine learning are used to analyze and predict catastrophic events and mobilize emergency response teams. Using enormous amounts of data, researchers are applying artificial intelligence (AI) to find new and useful patterns to accurately predict earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and volcanic eruptions to save lives and reduce property damage. 

This kind of data enables governments to prepare and deploy the military to reach more people, sooner, more cost-efficiently, and save more lives. This is even more important during a pandemic when emergency response teams deployed to communities hit by natural disasters or wildfires could face the risk of infection. 

These same technologies are helping in the coronavirus fight speeding up the search for new drugs, mapping the spread of the virus, and predicting the effectiveness of different actions to slow its spread. 

BlueDot, a Canadian technology startup founded by a Toronto physician, was among the first in the world to identify the emerging risk from COVID-19 in Hubei province. The firm uses AI and natural-language processing to scan over 100,000 official and mass media sources 24/7 from around the world to detect outbreaks of diseases. 

Using machine learning, Southampton University’s WorldPop team in the U.K. uses peer-reviewed spatial statistical methods to support development, disaster response, and health applications, including epidemic modelling. To eliminate malaria in Zanzibar, the team worked with the World Health Organization and UK mobile operator Vodafone in 2007 to map how populations move by compiling anonymized sets of location data from mobile phones in areas where cases of the disease had been recorded. 

Despite privacy, civil liberty, and surveillance concerns, some countries, such as South Korea, China, and Israel, are now actively tracing coronavirus patients and their contacts by geolocating their cellphones.

Technology is here to enable us.

But that doesn’t mean we let down our guard. As more systems and infrastructure are built to be smart and include Internet of Things connectivity, the more at risk they become, underscoring the need to invest in cybersecurity defences. 

Bad actors – cybercriminals to state-backed hackers engaged in espionage – are already making the most of coronavirus anxiety to lure people into revealing security information, handing over financial or personal information, and downloading malicious software. 

Many organizations thought they had the tools necessary to allow employees to work from home seamlessly. But, for many, the sudden move to a remote workforce exposed vulnerabilities in cybersecurity. There was little time to grant remote access on the principle of least privilege, a fundamental concept of information security in which users are granted only the bare minimum of permissions to perform their work. 

Basic cyber hygiene and diligence in the areas of access management, network-segmentation, anti-malware controls, monitoring, and most importantly, employee awareness and education will go a long way in dealing with such crises. 

The reality is, countries, including Canada, will need to take a measured, gradual approach for restarting the economy to avoid another coronavirus outbreak that shuts us down all over again. Like in any crisis, lessons will be learned, silver linings will be found, and new opportunities will emerge. In this crisis, however, it’s uncertain when the tide will turn – and that will require fundamental changes to time-honored working cultures and norms in every facet of the economy.

One thing is clear: we must all plan for the new reality, rather than return to normal. 

The more resilient a country is, the faster it can recover.